Channel 4, 12 November 2009
To be an impartial reviewer (if there ever is such a person) one needs to have an open uncluttered mind and a willingness to learn. I certainly had the latter, but with so much media hype it was very difficult to have the former with impartiality. I was hoping for illumination into Nadya Suleman's reason in January 2009, for having six IVF embryos replaced that created eight babies. I was hoping for sound reasons and explanations. I should have known better! Those of us who work in the fertility field know that there is always someone in every fertility clinic whose needs and desperation the professionals do not totally understand. We also know that there are some doctors who find it on occasions very difficult to say no to patients' requests. We also know that unfortunately commercial forces are often inevitable, with clinics having to constantly show excellent results to keep people coming.
What I did learn from this Channel 4 documentary (who incidentally themselves got scooped up in the commercialism which they appeared to be criticising on the film) was that Nadya, an only child, had a very dysfunctional relationship with her mother that was played out in front of the camera. (Brilliant television of course!) And that she had used the same known donor, who was a platonic friend, to help her create embryos through IVF at a clinic in California. Although she had six children already she wanted 'one more' so decided to have the last six embryos replaced. As two embryos split she then delivered eight babies, to the surprise of the obstetric team, who thought that she was having seven. She was offered selective fetal reduction, which she refused as this felt like 'murder' to her. We also learnt that she has steadfastly refused to name the genetic father and had a rather mistaken belief that at one point he would want to be involved. Being unemployed means that she has to court and keep the media on side so that they pay her for every photo and story, for the survival of these 14 children, their food, their nappies ($700 a week) and the hired help ($10,000 a month).
The film also went on to to show the consequences of the chaos that has developed from this unregulated fertility treatment, and an unquenchable patient's desire to have as many children as possible at enormous cost to many individuals. Dr Kamrava, the fertility specialist who treated Nadya, has been expelled by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Her relationship with her mother has irretrievably broken down. Many Americans have vilified her, saying that she has only done this for the publicity and to make money. She has been demonised on the Internet, with consequent issues for her older children who can now watch online the mainly unpleasant criticism of their mother. She has had to fight in court to control the money that she is given for the children as the local authorities wanted to put the money into a trust administered by someone else. There are obviously enormous costs to her, but I was left puzzled that although her every day life seemed to be a constant 'battle' with paparazzi and criticism, she did not appear to be bowed down by this and remained remarkably cheerful and somewhat naively optimistic as if she was running a nursery rather than being a mother.
So who will bear the main costs of this sad and rather delusional tale? It has to be the children, ironically, the children that Nadya has fought so hard to conceive. Already one of her older children was 'acting out' with a fair amount of hostility, his aggression at having and living with an 'unavailable' mother. If Channel 4 revisited her every year I fear that the consequences of her actions, the action of the donor, the 'help' by the fertility specialist will have far reaching consequences for all of these children, who have had no choice in their parenting, and no ability to find out who their genetic father is. It is too easy to vilify Nadya; other people have also to take responsibility for their actions in this story.
Although I was hoping for illumination about Nadya's own psychopathology, I didn't receive much from this documentary and felt that one of the very few positives came from one of her helpers, who said words to the effect of 'the children are here, we can't undo this, so we just have to get on with it'.